13. Cities of Populism (ENG)

Perjantai 28.8. klo 10:00-11:30 / Friday 28th August 10:00-11:30.

This session explores performance of populism in urban spaces, cities as a landscape for populist articulations. We investigate urban landmarks, both reflecting statehood in the populist way and generating hegemonic identification with the power holders. But we also investigate use of space and restrictions and openings for the people. The most recent case deals with populist politicians and the COVID-19 situation. For us populism entangles with other ideologies and we can see several ones such as nationalism, masculinism and neoliberalism manifested and made tangible in the city. We are particularly interested in intertwined articulation of materiality and representations in the urban encounters, whether everyday, festive or state of exception – or with elements of several ones of these. Time for us is multi-layered and moments central for populist articulation. Here we draw inspiration both from theorists in urban studies and discourse theorists and particularly those who have engaged with both. The session combines a multi-disciplinary set of scholars in different generations, with background with in philosophy, political theory, geography and urban and regional studies. We explore, how in formal and informal respects, cities are shaped by (1) populists in power, and (2) populism as an logic of articulation (irrespective whether those shaping are called populist or not).

Session chairs:

Emilia Palonen, Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Helsinki.

Jani Vuolteenaho, University Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki.

Esitykset / Presentations:

1. Football stadiums as the epicentres of populist-emotional attachment: ‘Us’-building and discursive (counter-)enactments around post-socialist urban landmarks

Jani Vuolteenaho, University of Helsinki.

Katinka Czigány, University of Helsinki.

Mikko Salmela, University of Helsinki, University of Copenhagen.

Entangled with variants of populist us-building in Central-Eastern Europe and beyond, two distinct “landmark languages” have experienced a resurgence in the post-socialist urban context; one coupling the state-of-the-art entertainment venues and monuments with a socio-historically inward-looking nationalism, heroic masculinism and authoritarianism, the other clinging to the corporate power, neoliberal glorification of entrepreneurialism, and maximised revenue streams and visibility in the global market place. Combining insights of populism theory (e.g. Laclau, 2005; Müller; 2016; Gandesha, 2018; Palonen, 2020) with a Benjaminian focus on making the past emotionally and collectively impactful in the present (Benjamin 1999a; 1999b), this comparative study analyses “right-wing” and “left-wing” populisms associated with football fandom in Hungary and eastern (ex-GDR) Germany. We start with a contextualising account of the cultural history and geography of stadium building in these national settings (cf. Kolamo & Vuolteenaho, 2019; Vuolteenaho et al., 2019). We then analyse populist discourses and formations that have emerged around two prominent stadiums as (physical) urban landmarks, (social) event spaces and (explicit/implicit) political statements, paying attention to affects and emotions in populist in-group formation and reinforcement. As an authoritarian enactment of a spatial logic that merges a selective national-historical narrativization with masculinist self-aggrandisement, we first zoom in on the Arena Pancho (AP), a stadium named after the famous 1956-match hero Ferenc Puskás, located in the hometown of the Fidesz leader Victor Orbán. In the case of AP, the venue’s national-symbolic architectonics creates an extreme dichotomy between a “home” (“us”) and the “opposite” (“them”) side (based on a connection between the present and the anti-communist, revolutionary past); our analysis focuses on the stadium’s reception by different online publics: what kinds of emotional formations have emerged around this top-down political statement inscribed onto the urban landscape? In the ex-GDR context, we study populist formations and contestations around the football club RB Leipzig and its Red Bull Arena (RBA), presenting a fiercely contested “game-changer” towards market-led football and fan cultures in Germany. Our analysis of RBA as a corporatized landmark, eventscape and largely implicit political statement addresses both fan groups that have endorsed the club’s new management methods and policies (buying into their market-oriented, neoliberal populist rationales), and more left-leaning populist formations that have contested these across both eastern and western parts of Germany. Based on online media discourse analysis, the paper develops a conceptualisation of the frontier-drawing and us-building mobilisations in the post-socialist urban contexts of wide-spread football enthusiasm.


Ames, N. (2020). ’Things are quite special here’: Union Berlin prepare for the Bundesliga. The Guardian, 17 Aug, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/aug/17/union-berlin-bundesliga-quite-special-here

Benjamin, W. (1999a). Illuminations. London: Pimlico.

Benjamin, W. (1999b). The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gandesha, S. 2018. Understanding right and left populism. In: Morelock, J. (ed.) Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism, 49–70. London: University of Westminster Press.

Kolamo, S. & Vuolteenaho, J. (2019). Uncanny resemblances? Captive audience positions and media-conscious performances in Berlin during the 1936 Summer Olympics and the 2006 FIFA World Cup. International Journal of Communication 13, 5310–5332.

Laclau, E. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Müller, J.-W. (2016). What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Palonen, E. (2020). Ten theses on populism – and democracy. In Eklundh, E. & A. Knott (eds.): The Populist Manifesto. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Salmela, M. & von Scheve, C. (2018). Emotional dynamics of right- and left-wing political populism. Humanity & Society 42(4), 434–454.

Vuolteenaho, J., Wolny, M. & Puzey, G. (2019): “This venue is brought to you by…”: The diffusion of sports and entertainment facility name sponsorship in urban Europe. Urban Geography 40, 762–783.

Weber, S. (1996). Mass mediauras; Or, art, aura, and media in the work of Walter Benjamin. In D. S. Ferris (Ed.), Walter Benjamin: Theoretical Questions, 27‒49). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

2. The Visible Virus: Andrej Babiš’ Response to Covid-19 Reflected in Prague

Ilana Hartikainen, University of Helsinki.

In the fight to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, a pattern has emerged of populist-led governments trying to cut through democratic structures, most particularly in Poland and Hungary. The response has been different in fellow Visegrad Four member Czech Republic, where the government cemented itself as one of the fastest and harshest responders in Europe by quickly putting the whole country under quarantine and later mandating that no one go outdoors without a mask. The driver and main public figure behind these policies is the centrist populist PM Andrej Babiš, a celebrity businessman who built his political career on the claim that he, as a former CEO, could address problems more quickly and effectively than normal politicians.

While the efficacy of these orders in terms of limiting the spread and eventual effects of the virus remains to be seen, the orders have already had impressive visible results in the public space, especially in the now-empty capital city of Prague. Relying on a Laclaudian discourse theoretical framework, this paper will analyze the visual effects of the government’s response to the virus on the public space in Prague, arguing that they are just as important as the health effects in terms of Babiš’ perception. Although he has not joined Poland or Hungary in using the pandemic to stunt Czech democracy, Babiš publicly visible and emotionally evocative response fits the same pattern by advancing the image of himself as an effective leader and thereby attempting to solidify his own power.

3. Performing statehood and populism in Kosovo and Hungary

Emilia Palonen, Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Helsinki.

Marina Vulovic, Doctoral student, Doctoral Programme in Political, Soci­etal and Regional Change, University of Helsinki.

Agnés Eörss

In Central and Eastern Europe, symbolic urban landscapes are sites of struggle, where those in power seek to manifest their visions. In these symbolic performances, past, present, and future entangle, and become concretized spatially. Through critical theory, combining the work of Walter Benjamin and Ernesto Laclau, we particularly explore the performing of a political “us” in memorials, often casted as the nation but also symbolising the state and the people as a counter hegemonic articulation. We explore two different sites where statehood is performed and contested, Hungary and Kosovo, in order to unveil mechanisms of the spatio-temporal and political interventions in materialising the state and its chosen historical underpinnings. The tradition of statehood is different but we wit-ness similar performative mechanisms: memorialisations, dealing with trauma, and taking over symbolic landscapes and the homogenisation of space into a historical yet frozen vision by drawing political frontiers. Politicised places in the urban centres perform the nation through a demand for sovereignty, even superiority. Their spatiality is multi-layered, conflictual, even as some of the constitutive conflicts of statehood are hidden in the memory of the previous lives of the same places. Our rhetoric-performative analysis of the centres of power in the urban articulations, explores the main bridge and the memorial of Prince Lazar in North Mitrovica, Kosovo, as well as the surroundings of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest where the interwar period is reinstalled. These exemplify processes of commemoration and amnesia in the intersection of statehood and nationhood cast in stone.